Some Thoughts on Voluntary Education, Part 2

After reading through the Strike The Root forums, I have been inspired to write this follow up piece to an earlier column on voluntaryist outreach. In particular, the Root Strikers' forum proved to be ample food for thought, especially in reference to my previous article. One specific post can be read below:

"While I have great respect for Auberon Herbert, the student of Herbert Spencer who coined "voluntaryism," I really think catering to the misconceptions of the Average Joe with this bargaining approach would be counterproductive. We need to challenge his assumptions of servility to State, statolatry, and tribalism. Asking him to be just a little less tribal, a little less gullible, just a little less obedient to his masters just won't hack it. First, the road from lick your master's boots a little less to slit his throat is too long - it would take more than Average Joe's lifetime. Second, if he can't make a larger leap, he's not worth convincing anyway. One must pick one's battles. No matter how much you argue, you won't convince GW Bush, Dick Cheney, or Hitlery Clinton that the State should be disbanded. The same goes for many hopelessly indoctrinated Joes."

In this instance, the poster is attempting to state that voluntaryists should "go the full hog" when seeking to disseminate our ideology to the uninitiated. Incrementalism, in his perspective, would be futile in our efforts to "proselytise" voluntaryism. His viewpoints seem intriguing, nonetheless I do hold some reservations about the poster's views.

1 - It's not about incrementalism

In my original column, I specified the need for empathy when dealing with newcomers to voluntaryism. I feel this is in order since the Average Joe has been conditioned into a statist paradigm; he cannot help but believe that the state is out to benefit him. Accounting for this, I reckon that we must be careful in how we approach "virgin" voluntaryists.

As such, a soft approach is the answer, rather than being incremental. From the average Joe's perspective, voluntaryist ideas are way beyond the mainstream. He thoroughly welcomes governmental dominion over his life. Statements such as "taxation is theft" would appear out-of-this-world to him. So, a "softly-softly" method is in order. In our outreach efforts, we could ask "Do you think government is too big?" or "Do you think government undermines individual liberty?" or "Don't you think you should keep all of the money you earn?" Such questions may make the Average Joe ponder his views regarding the state. He may ask himself if voluntaryist ideals do make sense, and whether to continue clinging to his statist mentality.

When the late, great Harry Browne was alive, he generally took a similar approach. In conjunction with Michael Cloud, he presented The Art of Libertarian Persuasion seminars as a means of teaching others how to properly communicate libertarian ideas. Harry Browne also compiled the book Liberty A-Z, which included brief libertarian soundbites on a wide range of political issues. The crux here is that persuasion is an art. It is something that requires a lot of hard work and subtlety. The art of persuasion is rather like sales techniques in the free market. A salesman must be careful in how he persuades someone to buy a specific good or service. A major wrong move could constitute a lost sale.

2 - Economic crises don't hasten ages of liberty

The poster also claimed that economic crises result in increased liberty. I have problems with this claim. He states:

"I wouldn't worry too much about those Average Joes who are too brainwashed to realize the State is their oppressor. When the s*** hits the fan, when hyperinflation or some other crisis makes the State obviously powerless and irrelevant, he'll figure it out. Our critique of State, which he rejected out of hand when money was good will suddenly be recalled. We don't have to convince him - we simply have to plant the ideas in his mind. When the 'objective conditions' prevail, he'll come around before you can say '$1000 for a loaf of bread' or 'no welfare check or government pension.' There's no need to water down our arguments or weaken our case. Challenge him, and when the time is right, he'll 'get' it."

Whether the USA , or other first world countries, are headed for a prolonged period of hyperinflation is hard to project. Certainly I'm not an expert in economics. Nevertheless, it's wrong to state that economic crises, per se, always produce a freer society. The Great Depression, for example, only led to increases in the size of government. It also gave rise to Keynesian economics, a general distrust of the free market and other things that heightened intrusions into the individual's life.

If hyperinflation does occur, then it is possible that ordinary people may not automatically link the occurrence with excessive governmental power. We must note that the Average Joe doesn't possess an in-depth knowledge of economics. Therefore, he wouldn't hastily make such a link. In 1920s Germany , hyperinflation led to the collapse of the liberal democratic Weimar Republic and the arrival of totalitarianism in the shape of the Third Reich. Who really is to say what would transpire if there was another major economic crisis? Such a crisis may not necessarily usher in a new era of liberty.

3 - The term "voluntaryism" is prone to statist manipulation.

The poster went on to say:

"Finally, the word 'anarchism' is much less prone to manipulation and weakening than 'voluntaryism.' Just as 'liberal' went from meaning limited, consensual government and laissez-faire to big intrusive government used to solve every perceived problem (at least in the US), 'voluntaryism' could very easily be similarly perverted. Ask any statist 'liberal' whether government is voluntary, whether people tax themselves, regulate themselves, and so on. They think the State is voluntary simply because you occupy space claimed by 'your' monopoly protection racket! "

It is true that, in an American context, the word "liberal" is not often used in its original meaning. In contemporary times, liberalism pertains to a belief in welfare, big governments and "positive rights/freedoms" for the poor and worse off. However, there is a reason for this.

In the UK , like the USA , modern liberalism (or social liberalism as we call it in Europe ) is far more big-government oriented than 19th Century classical liberalism was. This is because around the turn of the 20th Century, liberals began to ask, "What about the poor? Aren't their freedoms as important?" Since then, social liberals in many European countries have sought to advocate positive freedoms/rights and promote extra provisions for the poor. In the UK , it was the Liberal Party that first instituted a basic welfare state. In general, this paradigm shift only occurred as a result of a re-evaluation of base principles within a movement and not as a consequence of outside manipulation.

In that sense, why would voluntaryists seek to re-evaluate our ideology? We already recognise that the ideal of self-ownership, plus the principle of non-aggression that follows from it, are sound values. I cannot really foresee such a profound shift happening inside voluntaryist circles. Granted, there are different schools of voluntaryist thought, such as Agorism, Friedmanite utilitarian views, Rothbardian natural law views, etc. Still, the fundamental values of voluntaryism are intact in each aforementioned viewpoint. It's also unlikely that the average Joe will educate himself away from believing that anarchism equates with chaos, so in the meantime we have to place our efforts at his level of understanding.

Conclusion

I do believe that education, in terms of speaking to people about liberty, is the best means of eventually achieving a free, voluntaryist society. I think this because political routes are untenable. Why participate in the state when you oppose its very existence? It also has to be said that partaking in the political process has been a dismal failure, as far as libertarian/voluntaryist values are concerned. I'm hopeful that with continual education, the man on the street may start to embrace liberty and begin to question the morality and legitimacy of the state. All voluntaryists who desire a free society should attempt to ask people about the state's legitimacy, if we ever are going to see a truly voluntary and free society.

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Christopher Awuku's picture
Columns on STR: 26

 
Christopher Awuku lives in the UK and works in the voluntary/community sector.  He runs a market anarchist blog at http://chrislib.blogspot.com